Sunday Nibble #65: The power of self-awareness

If you ever driven for more than five minutes in a big city or shopped in a crowded store, then you’ve experienced exactly what I’m going to be talking about.

A lot of people completely lack self-awareness, in ways both big and small, and this can cause problems everywhere, not just to themselves, but everyone they encounter.

Now, there are various kinds of self-awareness, and not everybody is lacking in all (or any) of them, although some people may be lacking in several. Some kinds of self-awareness are:

Spatial: This is awareness of yourself in relation to your surroundings, which includes the physical space, objects in it and, of course, other people. It comes in both static (non-moving) and kinetic (moving) varieties.

Personal: This is the meta-version of self-awareness, and indicates how aware you are of, well, how aware you are of yourself.

Intellectual: This is awareness of what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re capable of learning. The major effect of lack of self-awareness here comes in two varieties. One is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which people with a low ability at something greatly over-estimate their ability. (Classic example: Florence Foster Jenkins.) The other is a variation of learned helplessness, in which case people convince themselves that they could never learn a particular subject.

Cultural: Lack of awareness here leads to cultural-blindness. That is, you are only capable of seeing your own culture and traditions as reasonable and valid, while putting down or despising others.

Emotional: This is awareness of the emotions you are expressing through body language, tone, word choice, and facial expression, as well as those that others are expressing through similar means, and the effects that each person has on the others and vice versa.

Put them all together and you get SPICE, although the order has nothing to do with the particular importance of any single element. I arranged them to create an easy mnemonic.

So why is self-awareness important?

The very simple version is that the more self-aware you are, the more aware of other people you’ll be, so you will start treating them with more courtesy and giving them more attention. This will have a positive effect on them, make them more inclined to hang around with and be pleasant to you, and might even help them further develop their self-awareness.

It becomes a positive feedback loop for all involved.

Increasing your self-awareness will also help you spot people who lack it and have the empathy to figure out how to gently steer them toward it.

I’ve got some tips on increasing your self-awareness, but first I should give some examples of what happens when people lack it.

Spatial

The most obvious example of this one is the “human blood clot” that tends to form in doorways, particularly at any kind of party that involves people standing and wandering around indoors. We’ve all experienced it. There’s a huge living room, maybe a front porch or a backyard or, if it’s an apartment, maybe a balcony.

And yet… people wind up jammed in the doorways so that nobody can easily move through them. In other places, like stores or on sidewalks, this becomes the “liquid human” phenomenon. What does that one mean? Well, any liquid will expand to fill the container it’s put into, which is why the surface of, say, that tea in your glass will always be level. (The ice, not so much, but that’s a different thing.)

In cases of store aisles or sidewalks, the expanding happens so that a single person (or a group) will manage to take up the entire width of whatever they’re walking down. In grocery stores, this happens when somebody decides to walk and stand next to their cart instead of in front of or behind. On the sidewalk, it happens when a group of friends decides to walk side to side and, inevitably, more slowly than anything else on that now blocked sidewalk.

Add a vehicle of any kind, and it just gets worse.

Personal

Again, being the meta-version, when you are not personally self-aware, you are not aware at all of any of the ways you aren’t in the others. This is the heart of the knot that will get pulled apart shortly.

Intellectual

Have you ever had a discussion (or argument) with someone who was so absolutely convinced that they were right that nothing you said could persuade them otherwise — even if they were arguing in your area of expertise and from a place of complete ignorance? If you haven’t, just go check out a science discussion group and wait for a flat-earther or anti-vaxxer to show up.

This is an example of someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know. They assume that they have insight to knowledge that the experts don’t, and so no matter how many facts or how much data you throw at them, they “know” the truth because (fill in utter gobbledygook here.)

Now, have you ever tried to teach someone something, no matter how simple, only to watch their eyes glaze over, their palpable confusion, and their finally quitting in frustration? This is the opposite end of the same lack of self-awareness: the inability to realize what you can learn because you’re convinced you can’t. A lot of people have this block over things like math or foreign languages, but they don’t need to.

Cultural

This is probably the most dangerous kind of lack of self-awareness, and if you’ve ever heard someone berate a stranger, telling them “Speak English!” then you’ve run across one manifestation of it. This is the belief that the culture someone grew up in is the only one that exists, or that should exist, and that every other culture needs to blend in and vanish.

And note that these people are not exclusively U.S. citizens. I’m just using them as the example I know the best, but the same thing definitely happens in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa, and all of the Americas.

Needless to say, these people have never tried to move into another culture or, if they did, will hypocritically insist that they be accommodated — and there’s a nice circle for you. At home: “How dare you not speak my language and respect my religion!” Abroad: “Why don’t you all speak my language and respect my religion?”

See that disconnect? And, while far rarer it still happens, the flip side of this one is inappropriate cultural appropriation — dressing white kids up as “Indians” (cough… Native Americans) for Thanksgiving programs, white kids trying to speak in Ebonics, white nerds going all mecha-weeaboo, etc.

I personally saw this in one of my favorite college professors, who was as liberal as hell and didn’t have a racist bone in her body. However, she had spent her graduate year abroad in India to study theatre history — that part was quite valid — but came back dressed like a Rani, or at least like a Bollywood star — sarongs for days, hair dyed black, kohl and bindi. She was also fond of often tossing the aside, “I’ve been to India, you know.”

By the way, I dropped by campus about ten years after graduation to learn two things: One, she was actually a lot younger than I’d thought at 18. Two, she was actually blonde, and had by this point reverted to white culture, although more of a late Edwardian mode, like she’s watched way too many Merchant Ivory films.

Emotional

Emotionally unaware people will often behave aggressively without realizing it, either by raising their voices, gesturing, or using particular words. They also often react inappropriately to the emotional responses of others, and misinterpret those responses. Now, emotional self-awareness is the area that autistic people naturally have difficulty with, and I am by no means including them in the “Hey, you need to get self-aware” crowd. Theirs is a different issue, and one that they probably can’t magically fix themselves. But otherwise, people can. It’s just that this one probably only follows when the others are dealt with first.

So… how do I become more self-aware? I’m glad you asked.

Developing Spatial Awareness

Performing artists develop this skill in the course of learning their craft, whether it’s acting, dancing, singing, or playing an instrument. So, obviously, those are great ways to develop spatial awareness but, of course, not everyone is inclined to be a performer.

You can still develop the skills, though. The reason that performing artists have to be so aware is because they are generally working with other people or, if they’re doing a solo bit, they’re still working with the space they’re in. That’s because they have to interact with that space and the objects and people in it, and often with very precise timing.

If they didn’t, you’d see a lot of dropped ballerinas, or actors colliding when they weren’t supposed to, or props flying all over the place.

To develop this sense in real life, take some time each day to pay very close attention to where  you are, what it feels like when you’re still and when you’re moving, and to things around you. You can start at home in a very familiar room, and walk around it with intention.

Later, try this in a less familiar or strange public place, preferably one with not a lot of people around. Pay attention to how you move, what path you wind up taking and why. Whenever you find yourself stopping, take a look at where you’ve stopped and, again, ask yourself why you stopped there. Also look around to see whether you’re blocking a path for anyone else.

Finally, go into a room at home that you’re very familiar with, look around for thirty seconds, then leave that room, go someplace you can’t see into it, then write down as many things as you can remember from that space, starting in one corner and working your way around so that everything appears pretty much in the order it’s in the room.

Take as long as you want, then go back to the room and see how many things you got, how many you missed, and how accurate you were in the relationships or locations.

Extra credit: Learning improv is an incredible tool for developing self-awareness in all areas. Now, I know that performing and actually doing improv is not for everyone, but a lot of improv companies do offer workshops for non-performers that teach techniques specifically to improve skills at listening, spatial awareness, interpersonal relationships, and so on.

Developing Personal Awareness

The best part about this one is that it comes with development of the rest, although you should be constantly checking in to take inventory of the progress you’ve made, why it worked, how it made you feel, and what you want to do next. Again, this is the meta-awareness part.

Developing Intellectual Awareness

Pick a skill and learn one new thing in that area per day. The great part is that we now live in an age where tutorials and free lesson plans and all kinds of educational opportunities are available on our computers and devices, right in the comfort of our own home.

If you want to learn a language, for example, Duolingo is a great start, and you only need to devote a few minutes a day to it. It’s also free with very non-obtrusive ads which you can eliminate for a small fee.

There’s also Khan Academy, which offers courses in all kinds of subjects, again all free. They cover STEM topics, Arts & Humanities, History, Computing, and Economics. They do seem to be lacking in social sciences and languages, but those are also available if you search.

I was terrible at math as a student but figured I’d never need it as an adult — until I did. But it was then that I realized I wasn’t bad at math. My teachers were just bad at teaching it.

That’s why Common Core is actually a good thing (sorry, nay-saying parents) — because it teaches math in more than one way. Some kids are going to understand the old school, rote, “this is how it’s done” method. Others aren’t going to get that, but are going to latch right on to alternative methods that work, even if they confuse adults.

It’s the same thing with learning on your own online: You get to find the method that works for you, and suddenly come to the awareness that it was never your inability to learn. It was that you were being taught in the wrong way.

Some people are visual learners (here are some graphs and videos!), some people are auditory learners (listen to this!), and others will only get it if they read it (turn to page 42!) Schools tend to focus on one method, usually the one preferred by the teacher, and the other kids get left behind.

You’re an adult. You don’t need to get left behind, and you can learn what you want to. So go for it!

Bonus points: Remember the “listing things in the room” exercise for developing spatial awareness? This can also help you improve your memory, because it is the basis for a technique called the Memory Palace, which has enabled people to do ridiculous things like remember the order of a deck of cards after one pass through it.

Think you can’t remember things? You can teach yourself to do so, and use that as a method to help with all the other things you’ve decided to learn on your own. The most important thing to remember: We don’t stop living until we stop learning.

Developing Cultural Awareness

This can be the most difficult one of all, because it requires listening to yourself very carefully as well as listening to others in order to uncover your own hidden biases, or just phrases you use that can be taken in the wrong way.

Some people would deride this as “being PC,” but I’d prefer to think of it as “not being an insensitive jerk.” Some of the examples might seem quite innocuous, but they can have an impact.

For example, have you or anyone you know said something like, “The wolf is my spirit animal?” It can be a pretty common expression among white people, and we don’t intend any disrespect. The idea we’re trying to express is “This is the animal I most identify with.”

Okay, fine — but you’re doing it in terms that, to Native Americans, are very explicitly tied up in their religion. Imagine someone from a non-Christian culture saying something like, “For me, curry is the Body of Christ and tea is his Blood.”

Yeah, that would piss off a lot of Christians, conservative or not.

So… don’t do it to Native Americans and First Nations people.

Luckily, you had a white woman give you a perfectly acceptable alternative that comes right out of your own modern pop culture. Try saying instead, “The wolf is my patronus.”

Boom. Same idea, not offensive.

And there are other problematic expressions. For example, saying, “Yeah, my boss is a slave-driver.” Oh, really? You mean that he or she literally owns your ass, beats you regularly, doesn’t pay you anything, and might even keep you actually chained to your desk?

Or is it that she or he sometimes asks you to work late or come in on a weekend, and gives you extra assignments when you’re already busy? But you could quit any time you wanted to and just walk away without being hunted down by dogs and/or an angry lynch mob?

Yeah. Don’t say “slave-driver.” Try “task-master.” Or you could to for the ultimate diverse word, “asshole,” since everybody has one. Or… just realize that almost every boss does exactly what your boss does, and you’re not special.

You’re certainly not suffering like someone who was forcibly taken from their home and family, put in chains and sold to the highest bidder if they survived the trip across the Atlantic.

But, again, the goal here is listening to your words and deciding for yourself whether they could be taken as culturally insensitive. And there are more of them than you might think. Hell, at least one of them is still available in your grocer’s freezer case today.

This is another way in which improv helps. At my company, ComedySportzLA (and at all CSz companies in general), we have something called the “Brown Bag Foul,” in keeping with the sports theme, and it’s called if anyone — player or audience — says anything rude, crude, offensive, R-rated, or otherwise not family friendly.

And yes, awareness of it does keep us on our toes and very conscious of not taking the low road or the cheap shot. Although there is one big irony in it all — that brown bag itself could be construed as connected to yet another racist blast from the past.

Like I said: this is the most difficult one because it requires constant listening.

Developing Emotional Awareness

The funny thing about Emotional Awareness (aka emotional intelligence) is that most lists of how to develop it include “Developing Self-Awareness” as one of the most important steps involved. The rest depend on your preferred learning method, so chose from one of the links in this paragraph, or search for your own path.

And this was never meant to be this long, but it’s a big subject. Happy Friday, and happy self-awareness!

Friday Free-for-All #60: Oldest thing, four seasons, adult version, poverty

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What’s the oldest thing you own?

It would be a few Roman coins from around the reign of the Emperor Julian (361-363 C.E.) which I picked up on eBay years ago. I’ve always been a big fan of Roman history, especially the period from Julius Caesar up until the division of the Empire into East and West after the infection of both by Christianity.

I was a big fan of Julian in particular, and you can probably guess why from his nickname, “The Apostate.” He came not long after Constantine (reigned 306-337 CE), who was the emperor who decided to make Christianity the official Roman religion.

Oh, it wasn’t a decision made lightly, and several other religions were in the running. But Constantine’s mother Helena had converted previously and was somewhat of a fanatic. Her thing was collecting pieces of the “True Cross,” and legend has it that in her lifetime, she had gathered enough pieces to reconstruct a True Cross over twelve feet tall.

Officially, though, Constantine had a vision before a battle in which he saw a flaming cross in the sky and the words “In hoc signo vinces,” Latin for “In this sign, you shall conquer.” (Well, “thou shalt,” since it’s informal you.)

He conquered, although for his part all he did for that sign, via the Council of Nicaea, was to decide which version of Christianity was the “right” one, since there were still all kinds of doctrinal disagreements on whether the Holy Trinity was actually a single entity, or three different entities and, if so, whether any one of them created either of the others or was “more eternal” than the others.

In other words, a whole lot of debate over a whole lot of unprovable bunk. But one version won out and Constantine adopted it, although not to the detriment of other religions quite yet. Rather, the Edict of Milan recognized Christianity as a legal and valid religion when, previously, it had been really just considered an underground cult that had broken off from Judaism.

Julian tried to undo it by rejecting Christianity as a valid religion, but then died after being stabbed by a lance in battle. It was alleged, but never proven, that it wasn’t actually a battle injury, but rather assassination by one of his own soldiers, who was a Christian — at least as asserted by Libanius, a friend of the emperor.

It could have also been a Saracen warrior, which was more likely given the shape of the injury, although Christians themselves at the time did attribute the murder to one of their own, Saint Mercurius — which would have been a good trick, since he died over a hundred years before Julian was born.

But, anyway, I found coins from the reign of Julian on eBay and bought four of them very cheaply, for around five bucks. You may wonder why such ancient relics were so readily available and so cheaply, and the answer is simple.

They’re actually as common as dirt, thanks to Rome’s bellicose ways. When mercenary groups and armies were called to Rome from the various provinces, the single soldiers getting ready to head off would put all of their money in the form of coins (no paper or crypto back then) into earthenware jugs or clay pots, and then bury them near some landmark at home that they would remember later, to be dug up when they returned.

If they never returned — and this was often — those hidden stashes remained that way for centuries. When they were eventually dug up, the coins weren’t always in the greatest of condition and didn’t really have that much value historically or economically, but did become an obtainable piece of the past, at least to those of us who aren’t archaeologists or major museums.

And that’s how a few nearly seventeen-hundred-year-old coins wound up in my possession.

Is it better to live where there are four seasons or where one season takes up most of the year?

Saying “one season is better” can be tempting if it’s the right one — a year-long temperate late spring where temperatures stay between 72° and 85° at the hottest part of the day with occasional days of moderate rain could be attractive. But it could also be boring.

People like to joke that Southern California doesn’t have seasons — or, rather, that our seasons are wet, hot, earthquake, and fire — but we really do have seasons. They’re just not as extreme as other places.

For example, the difference between winter and summer here is nothing compared to the same two seasons in Minnesota or Texas, and we’ll never really see an extreme weather change from calm and clear to violent storm in a single afternoon like you’d find in Pennsylvania.

But we do have perceptible changes, and that really helps us keep track of the year. It’s just another sort of clock, imposed on top of the long-term annual one, holding together the shorter-term ones, like phases of the moon, days of the week, and hours of the day.

If we only had one season, and it was always noon on Monday, January 1, life would get really boring — and confusing — very fast. I mean, for one thing, would we all only pay rent once, or have to pay it every day?

What would the adult version of an ice-cream truck sell and what song would it play?

This one depends upon whether it’s an ice-cream truck for adult me or for boring “normal” adults. If the former, it would sell all kinds of interesting and obscure books, objets d’art, ephemera, and other interesting stuff, and the song would be this one:

The song, by the way, is from a 1969 film starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr called The Magic Christian and, while audiences at the time didn’t get it, I suspect it’s much more relevant now. Sellars plays a billionaire (in late ‘60s money) who adopts a homeless man, played by Starr, to be his son, then proceeds to teach him the lesson: “Everyone has their price, if you’re willing to pay it.” It’s an absolute indictment of capitalism, more relevant now than ever.

It’s also never clear whether Sellers’ character is truly demonstrating to greedy people how bad they are, or whether he’s just the biggest troll around because he can afford to be.

The whole film is online, linked under the title above. But… let me turn my mind to what muggles would want, and come up with that ice cream truck.

Yeah, definitely selling margaritas in all flavors, maybe daiquiris, too, and of course the theme song is that abomination named Margaritaville.

Is poverty in society inevitable?

Not at all and, oddly enough, this calls back to The Magic Christian, and why you should watch it right now.

Poverty in society is only inevitable when there is income inequality, which is a flaw common in, but not limited to, capitalism. You’ll find the same inequalities in the current Chinese system, which seems to be some sort of oligarchic statism, and the Russian system, which is a complete kleptocracy.

Hm… funny how all three of these super-powers that play the game of having different and competing political philosophies all have the same damn problem: those at the top, whether running the government, corporations, or both, have the vast majority of the assets, while the rest do not, and have to rely on being incredibly underpaid and undervalued by the ones at the top of the pyramid.

There are really two pyramids if you think about it though. The pyramid of of labor is the normal one — big at the bottom and stretching to a point at the top, each level representing exactly how much true effort and energy is expended in order to support the system. So the ones at the bottom do all of the work, while the ones at the top do practically none.

Meanwhile, there is the pyramid of assets, and that one is standing on its tip, getting bigger as it goes up. Each level represents exactly how much in wealth and assets people on that level have. It starts with nothing at the bottom and gives everything to those at the top.

The only reason the latter pyramid is stable is that it’s integrated with the former, which is holding it up. But if you remove the pyramid of labor, then the pyramid of assets is going to fall over pretty fast — and we’re already getting hints of that with all the workers who are suddenly walking out of low-paying restaurant jobs, leaving behind signs to explain, “Nope. We’re not doing this shit for that shit they pay us anymore.”

The system is cracking — but we still have a ways to go.

Poverty is only inevitable when there are no limits on personal wealth, which makes income inequality inevitable. I could go on and on about possible solutions, but this piece is already long enough.

Suffice it to say, though, that there does need to be an upper limit on individual wealth and corporate profit, with the rest going back to everyone else (i.e. the workers who made that wealth possible) or back into the corporation (i.e. its employees). Those wealthy individuals and corporations can chose how to give it back providing that they start giving it out at the bottom instead of the top — or they can chose not to, and the government will take care of that part for them.

It could end poverty pretty damn fast without impoverishing a single billionaire or bankrupting any corporations. Imagine that.

Friday Free-for-All #59: Multiple viewings, theater or home, hobby time, techsplosion

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What movie have you seen more than seven times?

For starters, I know that I’ve watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey way more than seven times. Once home video and DVD happened, watching 2001 on New Year’s Day instead of a certain parade became a long-standing tradition with me.

The more than seven viewings is also true of several of his films, including Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and A Clockwork Orange.

I can’t leave off The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m pretty sure I saw that more than seven times in high school alone, and The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Ten Commandments also make the list because they are still being rerun at least once a year on TV.

I can’t forget the Star Wars Original Trilogy and most of the Prequel Trilogy. The Sequel Trilogy hasn’t been around long enough yet. As for Star Trek, The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home are the only ones I’ve definitely seen that often.

There are a few James Bond films — definitely Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, and Moonraker (one good, one okay, and one cheesy as hell) again because of the TV return thing.

I’m not sure, but I think that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (that’s the amazing Gene Wilder-starring version and not the Tim Burton travesty) probably also makes the list. Oh. Also, Cabaret, All that Jazz, and Westside Story.

There are probably others, but these are the ones that I can definitely put in the more than seven list.

Do you prefer to watch movies in the theater or in the comfort of your own home?

This is an answer that’s changed enormously. Once upon a time, my reply would have been absolutely in a theater, because that’s where they were made to be seen.

But then as my interest in seeing all the latest MCU/DCEU franchise films fell to zero, waiting for home video or streaming became enough mostly — although I would still go out for the big event films that interested me, mainly Star Wars installments and Bladerunner 2049.

The last film I did see in an actual theatre was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, back in February 2020. It was a mid-weekday thing and there were about four of us in the place.

So already having discovered the joys and convenience of streaming, not to mention the lower cost if it’s something on a service you already have, by the time the theaters shut down it was a no-brainer, and I’m not really inclined to go back anytime soon.

Honestly, seeing a Marvel movie on a big screen doesn’t really add much to it, not compared to the quality I can get at home. Plus I also don’t have to put up with other people, sticky floors, or an endless parade of pre-show trailers and adverts.

What hobby would you get into if time and money weren’t an issue?

I would become a total model train geek, although it would be about more than just the trains. I’d want to create an entire miniature city in a dedicated room, like a full basement, and build it in something like N Scale, which is ¾” to 1 foot, or 1:160 scale.

This would make a model of the Empire State building just over 9 feet tall at the tip of its mast, although it would take 33 linear feet of model to make up one mile of street, so it wouldn’t be a very big city. (Z scale would cut this down to 24 feet per mile, but definitely sacrifice some realism.)

To get a scale model of all of San Francisco into an area 33 feet on a side, you’d wind up with city buses being just under half an inch long and a tenth of an inch wide. You’d only need to cut the N scale in half to model two square miles of Midtown Manhattan.

But wait… it does say that time and money aren’t an issue, right? So instead of building a single square mile of city in a basement, why not go for a warehouse or buy an abandoned big box store? Aim for something that would fit fifty or a hundred square miles of city, and if it had multiple floors, go for various layouts — urban mega-city, suburban smaller town, historical city — with a scale ten mile footprint, you could easily build two separate 19th century Main Street towns surrounded by countryside and connected by railroad and telegraph.

And I wouldn’t need to go it alone. Hell, it could become an entire project that would employ model and miniature makers, urban planners, painters, designers, builders, electricians, programmers, and more. Give the big city a working harbor and airport, also have miniature cars and people moving around, design it to not only have a night and day cycle but seasons and weather as well, and it could be quite a thing.

It could even become a tourist attraction. Hell, they already did it in Hamburg, Germany.

And why does the idea fascinate me so much? Maybe because I was into model trains as a kid, although never had a neat, permanent layout. But this also led to me becoming a big fan of games like Sim City, in which I could indulge my curiosity about building and creating things and see where they led — especially urban landscapes.

Hm. Give me all the resources, and I just might make TinyTowns a major tourist destination.

Why did technology progress more slowly in the past than it does now?

I believe that this is because technological development is exponential, not algebraic. The latter is a very slow, additive process. You go from 1 to 1+1, or 2, then to 2+1 for 3 and so and so on. Repeat the process 100 times, and you land on 101.

Take the simplest exponential progression, though, in which each subsequent step is double the one before it. That is, go from 1 to 1×2, or 2, then 2 to 2×2 for 4, and so on. After a hundred steps, your result is 1.25×10^30, or roughly 1 followed by 30 zeros, which is one nonillion.

For perspective, a yottabyte — currently the largest digital storage standard yet set — is equal to one trillion terabytes, the latter currently being a very common hard drive size on a home computer.  The number noted above is ten thousand times that.

It’s exactly how we wound up with terabyte drives being so common when, not very long ago, a 30 megabyte drive was a big deal. That was really only within a generation or so. This relates to Moore’s Law, stated in 1965 as “the number of transistors in a computer chip doubles every 18 to 24 months.”

What wasn’t stated with the law was that this doubling didn’t just affect the number of transistors, and therefore the number of simultaneous operations, that a chip could perform. It extended to every other aspect of computers. More operations meant more data, so you could either speed up your clocks or widen your data buses (i.e. length of allowable piece of information in bits) or both.

And this is why we’ve seen things like computers going from 8 to 64 and 128 bit operating systems, and memory size ballooning from a few kilobytes to multiple gigabytes, and storage likewise exploding from a handful of kilobytes to terabytes and soon to be commercial petabyte drives.

Perspective: A petabyte drive would hold the entire Library of Congress print archive ten times over. If would probably also hold a single print archive and all the film, audio, and photographic content comfortably as well.

Now, all of this exploding computer technology fuels everything else. A couple of interesting examples: Humans went from the first ever manned flight of an airplane to walking on the moon in under 66 years. We discovered radioactivity in 1895 and tested the first atomic bomb 50 years later. The transistor was invented in 1947. The silicon chip integrating multiple transistors was devised in 1959, twelve years later.

And so on. Note, too, that a transistor’s big trick is that it turns old mathematical logic into something that can be achieved by differences in voltage. a transistor has two inputs and an output, and depending how it’s programmed, it can be set up to do various things, depending upon how the inputs compare and what the circuit has been designed to do.

The beauty of the system comes in stringing multiple transistors together, so that one set may determine whether digits from two different inputs are the same or not, and pass that info on to a third transistor, which may be set to either increment of leave unchanged the value of another transistor, depending on the info it receives.

Or, in other words, a series of transistors can be set up to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. It’s something that mechanical engineers had figured out ages previously using cogs and levers and gears, and adding machines and the like were a very  19th century technology. But the innovation that changed it all was converting decimal numbers into binary, realizing that the 0 and 1 of binary corresponded perfect to the “off” and “on” of electrical circuits, then creating transistors that did the same thing those cogs and levers did.

Ta-da! You’ve now turned analog math into digital magic. And once that system was in place and working, every other connected bit developed incredibly over time. Some people focused on making the human interfaces easier, moving from coding in obscure and strictly mathematical languages, often written via punch cards or paper tape, into not much improved but still infinitely better low level languages that still involved a lot of obscure code words and direct entry of numbers (this is where Hex, or Base 16 came into computing) but which was at least much more intelligible than square holes a card.

At the same time, there had to be better outputs than another set of punched cards, or a series of lights on a readout. And the size of data really needed to be upped, too., With only four binary digits, 1111, the highest decimal number you could represent was 15. Jump it to eight digits, 1111 1111, and you got… 255. Don’t forget that 0 is also included in that set, so you really have 256 values, and voila! The reason for that being such an important number in computing is revealed.

Each innovation fueled the need for the next, and so the ways to input and readout data kept improving until we had so-called high-level programming languages, meaning that on a properly equipped computer, a programmer could type in a command in fairly intelligible language, like,

10 X = “Hello world.”

20 PRINT X

30 END

Okay, stupid example, but you can probably figure out what it does. You could also vary it by starting with INPUT X, in which case the user would get a question mark on screen and the display would return whatever they typed.

Oh yeah… at around the same time, video displays had become common, replacing actual paper printouts that had a refresh rate slower than a naughty JPG download on 1200 baud modem. (There’s one for the 90s kids!) Not to mention a resolution of maybe… well, double digits lower than 80 in either direction, anyway.

Surprisingly, the better things got, the better the next versions seemed to get, and faster. Memory exploded. Computer speeds increased. Operating systems became more intuitive and responsive.

And then things that relied on computers took off as well. Car manufacturers started integrating them slowly, at first. Present day, your car is run more by computer than physical control, whether you realize it or not. Cell phones and then smart phones are another beneficiary — and it was the need to keep shrinking transistors and circuits to fit more of them onto chips in the first place that finally made it possible to stick a pretty amazing computer into a device that will fit in your pocket.

Oh yeah… first telephone, 1875. Landline phones were ubiquitous in less than a hundred years, and began to be taken over by cell phones, with the first one being demonstrated in 1973 (with a 4.4 lb handset, exclusive of all the other equipment required), and affordable phones themselves not really coming along until the late 1990s.

But, then, they never went away, and then they only just exploded in intelligence. Your smart phone now has more computing power than NASA and the Pentagon combined did at the time of the Moon landings.

Hell, that $5 “solar” (but probably not) calculator you grabbed in the grocery checkout probably has more computing power than the Lunar Lander that made Neil Armstrong the first human on the Moon.

It’s only going to keep getting more advanced and faster, but that’s a good thing, and this doesn’t even account for how explosions in computing have benefited medicine, communications, entertainment, urban planning, banking, epidemiology, cryptography, engineering, climate science, material design, genetics, architecture, and probably any other field you can think of — scientific, artistic, financial, or otherwise.

We only just began to escape the confines of Analog Ville less than 40 years ago, probably during the mid to late 80s, when Millennials were just kids. By the time the oldest of them were second semester sophomores in college, we had made a pretty good leap out into Digital World, and then just started doubling down, so that two decades into this century, the tech of the turn of the century (that’d be 2000) looks absolutely quaint.

Remember — we had flip phones then, with amazing (cough) 640×480 potato-grade cameras.

Compare that to 1920 vs 1900. A few advances, but not a lot. The only real groundbreaker was that women could now vote in the U.S., but that wasn’t really a technological advance, just a social one. And if you look at 1820 vs. 1800, or any twenty-year gap previously, things would not have changed much at all except maybe in terms of fashion, who current world monarch were, or which countries you were currently at war with.

And that, dear readers, is how exponential change works, and why technology will continue to grow in this manner. It’s because every new innovation in technology sews the seeds for both the need and inevitability of its next round of advancement and acceleration.

We pulled the genie out of the bottle in 1947. It’s never going back in.

Friday Free for all #38: Words, music, and magic

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the most disgusting sounding word in the English language?

I know that a lot of people don’t like the word “moist,” but I don’t see what the problem with it is. And it’s still a toss-up whether the disgust people feel for words in whatever language have more to do with the sound than with the concept or thing it’s describing.

One web poll, for example, ranked “lugubrious” as a disgusting sounding word, but its meaning is decidedly not. It just refers to something that looks or sounds sad or dismal.

I don’t think I have one word in particular, but I do have some nominees: phlegm, smegma, and clitoris. And no, it has nothing to do with two of them being really gross bodily secretions and one being a very important part of the female anatomy.

It’s just that the first two sound a lot like they smell, as it were, and when you can smell a word, that’s bad. Also, it wouldn’t be at all inappropriate to pronounce either one like you’re about to hock up a giant loogie. And both “hock” and “loogie” aren’t far from round out a top five list for me here.

As for “clitoris,” no matter which syllable you emphasize (c-LIT-oris? Cli-TOR-is?) it’s just got too many clicks and weak vowels in it.

Do you like classical music?

No, I don’t like classical music. I FUCKING LOVE IT! Then again, I had a rather unusual musical upbringing as a child, starting with me beginning musical lessons when I was seven years old. And, fortunately, a hell of a lot of that learning was based on music theory — i.e., the Circle of Fifths, and the relationships of chords and keys to each other.

End result: while I’ve always been okay at reading sheet music, I’ve been demon motherfucking at improvising and composing. That’s part one.

Part two: My paternal grandfather — actually, step-grandfather, but I never met my bio one, so he counts as my only real one — was a big-time audiophile, and he was constantly going off to buy lots of records. Um… “lots” in the “sold in bulk” sense, and not in the “numerous sense.”

He would get these from estate sales or thrift shops or wherever. He’d bring them home, and remove what interested him — which was anything jazz, blues, big band, etc., before the era of rock and roll.

So… he would cull his collection, and leave behind endless milk crates with tons of classic rock albums, along with anything spoken voice and anything classical. Whenever I or any of my three same-age (second) cousins (long story) would visit, we got to go through the crates and take what we wanted.

Naturally, my cousins went for the classic rock, but I really didn’t have much interest in that. Instead, I went for the spoken word, and so discovered many a comedian I otherwise might not have because they came before my time. But I also grabbed anything classical I could get my hands on.

This all happened when I was in elementary and middle school, and I had already found Beethoven and Mozart, while my music lessons had introduced me to Chopin and Debussy. And then I got to high school, and had the most wonderful music teach of all.

His name was Ken Kamp, now deceased, and he was mostly a jazzman, but I wound up in marching band, orchestra, and the jazz ensemble with him throughout my high school years. Since I was a keyboardist, I only played piano in the latter. In the first two, I was the bass drummer and percussionist, particularly timpanist.

But the most amazing thing was the music history class I took with him my first year, and he made everything come alive, because he had a knack for turning it into stories. He would cover a couple of composers with dramatized bits, play some of their stuff, and I would add “Artists to check out” to me brain list.

One class I remember in particular was when he covered Hector Berlioz, mostly known for the Symphonie fantastique, but who actually wrote the definitive book on orchestration, and he did it by picking the minds of students at a particular music academy.

To this day, I remember him acting out the supposed scenario in the school cafeteria. “So he found the best player of a particular instrument, like, say, the oboe. And he sat them down and said, ‘Okay… what are your high and low notes, and what keys work for you, and if you finger it like this, is that easier than that?’”

Anyway… that march through the classics really influenced me as a composer, and gave me tons of favorites. My top ten? Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Orff, Holst, Williams, Elfman. (Yes, the last two do write classical music.)

If you ever want to have the most emotional experience of your life, go see (when it’s possible again) a full orchestral and choral performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Stay for it all, then strap in for the fourth movement.

When it hits the finale, if you don’t explode into tears of pure joy, then you have no soul.

What’s the closest thing to magic that actually exists?

I subscribe to Clarke’s Third Law, named for science fiction Arthur C. Clarke, which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So… that thing in your pocket that you can surf the internet on, send messages to people around the world, watch videos, make phone calls, and so on? Yeah, take that back to 1970 with some sort of time-link still connected to now, and you would make people’s heads explode with your witchcraft.

Of course, nowadays, a lot of people take the magic for granted and don’t even realize that without Einstein, their GPS would not work. Why? Because, relativity. Meaning that the GPS satellite up above the Earth experiencing slightly less gravity also experiences time in a slightly different way.

Meaning that in order to do the very precise calculations that won’t dump your ass in a canyon whenever you try to drive to CostCo require very refined adjustments to account for the different inertial frames of reference experienced by the satellite, your cell phone, and the nearest transmission towers.

Sure, the differences are in milliseconds or less, but they can translate into huge differences in spatial difference on Earth. If you’re off by one degree, depending on latitude, you could be off by tens of miles. Even an error of a second of latitude or longitude could put you off by dozens of feet.

But if you want real magic, then you have to dive into the big and the small — astrophysics and quantum physics.

Caveat: this is only magic if you don’t understand it. I’ve kind of been a fan forever, so I guess that makes me amateur wizard.

Anyway… astrophysics has taken us to the Moon and all of the planets in our Solar System, even sending two probes out. Meanwhile, it has also sent our eyes across the local group and the universe, with which we have learned so much — like discovering thousands of exoplanets, learning tons about black holes, gauging the true age of the universe, and even possibly discovering evidence of universes before it.

Quantum physics has run in the other direction, and proven that it does not get along with large-scale classical physics — yet. But it has taught us a bit about what everything is made of, and how weird reality gets at very tiny scales — and how tiny those scales are compared to everything else.

Just take a look at this amazing video from Morn1415, whom I encourage all of you to follow, because he does amazing stuff, indistinguishable from magic.

But, honestly, to me, the real magic was (and someday again may be) the look of love and admiration given to me by any of the dogs who I’ve ever been lucky enough to have as a companion.  Note that I will never say “dogs I’ve owned,” because I never owned them. They just decided to let me share my life with them.

And that was always the real magic.

Friday Free-for-all #36: First world fashion

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What first-world problem do you have?

I believe that people define “first-world problem” as something that people in wealthy countries struggle with, but which is hardly an inconvenience at all — things like “Trader Joe’s discontinued my favorite thing,” or “We still can’t tickets to Hamilton” (well, okay, right now, no one can), or “Can you believe that Ernesto can’t come out to detail the Lexus until a week from Thursday? He is that booked up.”

Of course, the real first-world problems are things like, “I just turned 50 and I’m still paying off my student loans,” or “I know I’m supposed to buy health insurance, but I’m a 35-year-old single mother with two kids, and the monthly premium would be almost twice my rent, which I can barely pay either,” or “Our CEO just retired with a $35,000,000 bonus package, and I haven’t had a raise in seven years.”

But they’re not first-world problems because they involve people who don’t live in mud shacks under an oppressive military regime or in nations with a GDP of five dollars U.S.

That’s because most people completely misuse the terms “first world” and “third world” and completely forget that there is a “second world” as well.

See, these are not economic terms. They are political, and date back to the Cold War. The First World comprised the U.S. and its allies, and the Second World was the Soviet Union and theirs. The Third World were all of those countries not aligned with either super-power.

So while a lot of people may think “Most of Africa” or “Places like Bangladesh” when they hear Third World, that is completely wrong. A lot of countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America were part of the First or Second World.

Here are some Third World countries, if you go by the actual definition: Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland, to name just a few of the 120 that are still currently part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Now, I don’t think anyone could look at those countries listed and think of them as “impoverished shitholes,” and yet that’s the true image most people have of third-world countries.

Getting back to what I listed as actual first-world problems — student loan debt, unaffordable health insurance and ridiculous rents, wealth being concentrated in the hands of the 1% while the rest barely get by, enormous income inequality, and hardly any union protections anymore — they are all the results of exactly what made the First World the First World in the first place.

Capitalism. In case you didn’t notice — First World, capitalist countries (under the euphemism of “Western Democracies”) vs. Second World communist countries (under the euphemism Soviet Bloc and satellite nations.)

So other than people getting the definition wrong being my personal first-world problem, my real problem with the First World is that it has proven unfettered capitalism to be just as failed a system as Soviet-style communism, which is just as corrupt and rotten at the top as is our current regime and as has been the party associated with it for forty years now.

I usually don’t go political here, and I’m trying to keep it abstract, but you asked. Okay, a website asked at random and my computer picked the question at random, but there you go.

Does fashion help society in any way?

This is a yes and no. Personally, I think that the emphasis Western culture puts on fashion is ridiculous. If the clothes fit and look good on you, that should be all that matters. But too many people invest too much time in fawning all over designers and labels, and paying way too much for stuff then can get better-made versions of a year later and for a lot less.

You’ve probably heard the whole “Don’t wear white after Labor Day” thing, right? In fact, that was a completely invented rule, although the reasons for its invention are murky. It might have been rich old-money women messing with the wives of the nouveau-riche in the late 19th century, after all of the new technologies and resources the U.S. was inventing and exploiting made tons of new millionaires.

Or it may just have been that white was for people who were able to travel to winter vacation homes in warmer climates to wear, while the ones who stayed behind in the city dressed drab from early September until late May.

In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, it’s been the fashion for a while now for Democratic women in Congress to wear white year-round — in fact, “suffragette white” in honor of the 100th anniversary of (most) American women getting the vote.

So yes, fashion and the idea that it has arbiters is silly, but I’ll bet that when a lot of people think about the ridiculousness of fashion, they think of those big runway shows during the Fashion Week of various cities, in which designers trot out their supposed designs for the next seasons’ lines.

But, of course, they create ridiculous things that would never be practical to wear IRL. Just a few examples appear here:

Of course, the models don’t even always wear clothes, as this very NSFW runway show demonstrates.

So, what’s going on? They’re not going to start selling these outfits at high-end boutiques and trickle them down to the little people, are they?

And the answer is “Of course not.”

The fashion shows are all about marketing and attention, and each of the designers trying to out-weird the others. The media eats it up by reporting it to their naïve fans as “OMG, can you believe that Clark St. Clark Divine Devore has in store for you this fall?” along with photos of models dressed in dirndls made of mirrored tiles, twelve-inch stiletto heels, four-foot high neon-colored wigs that cover their faces, not the backs of their heads, and wings made of actual chicken bones.

Which is all total bullshit, of course. There are two things happening in these shows: 1) Each designer is screaming “Look at me!” while hoping to get their name into the pop culture and fashion media. 2) At the same time, they are often showing off the materials and color palettes that they will be using in their legit designs — and those will probably show up at some point during the week, too, but most likely during the events focused on by the fashion press, like Elle and Vogue, and not the bullshite press, like People and Us.

Long detour to the answer, because there really is a distinction to be made between the fashion industry and fashion in general.

The industry takes itself way too seriously, and that is summed up in this amazing moment from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, in which her character delivers an amazing monologue in which she is so very right and yet so very wrong at the same time. It’s worth the watch.

And if you didn’t watch: After Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) giggles when a costume assistant holds up two belts that appear to be the same color, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) goes off on the color of Andrea’s sweater and traces its history back to the high-fashion runways and expensive designers, and basically outlines how some creator of haute couture four years earlier suddenly said, “I like this color!”, colored their collection with it, and it trickled down to eventually land in a bargain bin at a place like Ross Dress for Less.

That’s what’s so good about this movie: It both explains and eviscerates the fashion industry at the same time, and that approaches my answer.

Does the fashion industry help society in any way? Oh, fuck no, except as an opportunity for those of us who don’t care to be able to laugh at the pretentious.

But… does fashion help society in any way? In the sense that it’s personal, oh hell yes. When people just pick what they like, maybe learn to figure out what compliments their body shape and complexion, then puts it all together to express themselves, then that is the epitome of helping society by empowering people through finding their voice and look.

In essence, it makes each individual their own fashion designer, and to hell with what’s in style, or what color is hot this year, or whatever. It is the branding of those who reject brands and consumerism and being sold on what is supposed to be “hot.”

Which is kind of the anti-point of the last clip above.

I know a lot of people who dress very eclectic retro, which means a mix of all of the styles from the 1990s on back, practically speaking to maybe the 1920s, mixed and matched. But a funny thing happens when they do that. Well, a few things.

First, they create their own unique visual thing that is never less than interesting, but also instantly recognizable as them.

Second, it’s pretty clear that they don’t care less what the mainstream fashion industry tells them to wear, which actually ups my estimation of them instantly.

Third, most of the time, they’re not getting their outfits from any major retailers, rather relying on discount houses that dump imperfects or out-of-season clothes, but especially on thrift shops, that have a lot of high-end stuff for pennies on the Benjamin.

Not that we can do it right now, of course, but this is the fashion that makes a difference, and the fashion that empowers.

Designers are over-rated. The people know what they want and, given the freedom, they will wear it.

Friday Free-for-all #30: Questions, questions

NOTE: Due to a formatting error by WordPress, the original version of this post was corrupted, with missing text. This is the corrected version, which should now make a lot more sense.

This originally started as me answering one random question generated by a website, but the questions eventually got to the part where they didn’t really need long answers. So, instead, it’s turned into a slow-motion interview with multiple queries. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments — or ask your own!

Do you text more or call more? Why?

I absolutely text (or message) more. Calling is a tool of either intrusion or rudeness: it tells the person you’re calling, “Pay attention to me right now!” If they choose to let it go to voicemail, then they’re saying I don’t have time to drop everything right now and talk

There are only a couple of people, of course, who get an immediate answer, but since most of the calls I get nowadays are robots or sales calls, I rarely answer my phone. It’s kind of ironic that the feature that was so useful about these pocket computers when they first came out (as not really computers) has now become one of the most useless.

What is the fanciest restaurant you have eaten at?

It’s a tie between two for very different reasons. One is “money fancy” and the other is “atmosphere fancy.”

The former was the Jonathan Club in Downtown L.A., and as you can probably tell from the name, it’s a private club that’s been around since forever. The reason that I got my poor ass in, along with a group of co-workers/friends of equal socio-economic status, was that one of the producers on the TV show we all worked on at the time belonged to the club and took us there as a thank you.

Everything about it just screamed prosperity. It was a huge place — I think it took up the entire twelve-story building — and was a combination of “gentlemen’s” club, restaurants, and private suites for members’ use if they happened to be in town on a business trip. (The club is part of a network with reciprocal membership.)

I think the place may have even had a gym and indoor pool and all the amenities. It was founded in 1895, so had been there over a century when we went.

It was certainly impressive. We worked our way through a large, carpeted hall edged in dark wood with side rooms off it, each one with full bookcases and wingback chairs for the members’ comfort.

The dining room was huge, with big round tables surrounded by very comfy leather chairs that actually had arms. It was the kind of place with white linen everything, a placeholder dish with a placeholder dish on top of that to start, all the kinds of glasses, and every possible fork, knife, spoon and weird tool available in the cutlery collection, laid out in order, all in solid (not plated) silver.

It was also a menu that had only a few select items each day, and seemed to fall prey a little bit to the California cuisine fallacy that was even more in effect at that time: “Let’s find really great food and a bunch of fantastic ingredients, then throw in one or two things that absolutely shit it up but which pretentious foodies will think are the dog’s balls.”

Yeah, like that. That’s why I wound up ordering scallops, thinking they were fish, since they seemed like the least messed-up dish. (I didn’t find out until long after that they’re actually clams, which I never would have ordered, which is kind of weird because I do love me some New England clam chowder.

The food was amazing, and so was the service. A waiter would appear to refill your water glass the second you drained it, clean the tablecloth with a crumb-brush as the busboys took away the dishes between every course and, if anyone happened to go to the bathroom, they would come back to find a new napkin neatly folded in its original spot.

Yeah, that kind of fancy.

I have no idea how much it might have cost, but this was the co-executive producer and frequent director of a one-hour, prime-time TV series back in the day when broadcast TV meant something. And, to be honest, the real money was probably in the combination of directing and writing work, and residuals from both.

The other fancy place, which I’ve been to several times, is The Magic Castle, in Hollywood, which I’ve written about before, so I won’t go into great detail here. I’ll just say that for a membership club that allows ample guests, the prices are pretty reasonable, and if admission to the main dining room seems a little expensive, remember that it includes admission to all the mainstage shows — something you aren’t guaranteed if you’re cheaper.

Unfortunately, it’s mostly closed right now because of the pandemic, but when and if it re-opens, it’s worth going, and it’s not as hard to get in as you might think. Look up an L.A. magician who seems to do the corporate/birthday party circuit, figure out when they’re having a club show, then go see it. Afterwards, rave about their tricks and ask if they ever perform at the Magic Castle.

A lot of them do because they’re members, but at their level they’re like the dozens of garage bands that used to play tiny music venues in L.A., and sort of work for the same perks. Sure, they get to invite people because that’s how they get their audience, and those people spend money.

It’s exactly the same thing I experienced on the musician end of it, when in order to get a gig we had to guarantee a certain number of people. Oh, they all got in free, but there was a two drink minimum. The club made money off the booze. We only made it off of tickets that sold.

A lot of the non-name magicians at the Castle probably heard the same thing that we did: “You’re doing it for exposure.” But like we hoped to someday be good enough to play a larger local venue like the (late) Troubador before hitting a big theater or even an arena, they hope to open for a more famous magician or other variety act or, holy grail, go on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” and do what the title says in order to become Vegas famous.

Hm. Musician, magician. That’s only a two letter difference: us vs. ag, which actually makes sense… a band is a visible group, an “Us.” Meanwhile, a magician appears to be going solo (they’re not), but it costs a lot more money, really, for the tricks and their development than it does to becoming a working musician, hence it takes a lot of silver; atomic symbol, Ag.

Okay, I somewhat pulled that comparison out of my ass. But whether the former or the latter, I like to think that both types of artists deal in illusions — although I guess only the former also deals in allusions.

If you didn’t care at all what people thought of you, what clothes would you wear?

I don’t care what they think anyway, but the real snag is that it’s not legal, because I’d rather wear nothing because it’s just more comfortable.

Okay, it’s not totally illegal, and this is another topic I went more in-depth on two months ago. But America really needs to pull it’s repression out of its ass, lighten up, and learn from other countries where nudity is no big deal.

We all got’em — bodies and all the bits — and there really aren’t that many differences between them. But I bet that if we normalized nudity, it would eliminate body-shaming, help people with self-image, and greatly reduce things like eating disorders.

For one thing, it’s hard to point and laugh at someone else’s when you’re showing yours, most of us are not uber-fit supermodels, and it would demystify the human body to the point that porn might even become passé. It’s like the old joke about the two guys at a nudist colony (there’s a dated expression!) who don’t notice the attractive young woman until she puts on a tight T-shirt as she prepares to go home.

And general nudity might even really cut down on physical confrontations, because do you really want to start anything with that butt-nekkid WalMart security guard?

Friday Free-for-all #28: Two questions

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Since last week’s potpourri went so well, I decided to answer multiple questions again. I find that as I progress through the list, what remains seems less interesting to me. Although I can answer, I really can’t or don’t want to at length, so in interest of not needlessly padding things out, here we go.

What’s the worst injury you’ve ever gotten?

You know, I’ve actually managed to live a remarkably injury-free life (knocks wood.) I didn’t break my first bone until I was 21, in college, and it didn’t even have anything to do with drinking. It was the first day of the second semester my junior year (technically first semester of my senior year, but that’s a long story), and my birthday.

I was about to head off to my first class, but opened the living room window in our student apartment to check to see if I’d need a jacket since… February. It was cold, so I decided that I did, then slammed the window shut… right on the tip of my left index finger.

Did I mention that the apartment mate I shared a room with was in the living room on the phone talking to one of the Big 5 Accounting Firms in hopes of setting up a last semester of senior year internship that would turn into a job? Because that’s important.

Why? Because as soon as I slammed my finger in that window, I screamed something along the lines of, “Oh Jesus fucking fuckety fuck fuck fuck fucking Christ goddamit!”

There was a pause, and then I heard my roommate saying into the phone, “No… I think that one of my roommates just hurt himself.”

Hairline fracture of the tip of that finger, which got put in a splint for six weeks — and hooray for free student health care! But damn if that fingertip did not become a magnet for getting banged into everything for that month and a half.

The only other time I broke bone, ironically, was one in my wrist, and I never realized it. In fact, I didn’t find out until I thought that I did break a bone in my wrist and got it checked out only to find out that the little bone fragment in there was from a really old break. Like, what?

So, yeah. That’s pretty much it. One really minor break, one that was apparently unimportant enough for me to notice, and one false alarm.

Did your family take seasonal vacations?

Um… sort of? One thing I know is that my mother hated to travel, while my father loved to. Then again, she grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania that was a suburb to an exurb of the city Joe Biden was born in, and she only ever lived there before moving to Los Angeles, basically as a way to escape there.

Meanwhile, my dad, who was much older than her, enlisted in the air force as soon as possible — he was actually only sixteen — in order to escape here, and he wound up traveling all around the U.S. and a lot of the world.

But the only seasonal vacations we ever took involved visiting relatives — either his parents not so far up north, generally at Easter and Thanksgiving, or her mom and family all the way across the country, usually in the summer, and which I can remember doing exactly four times in my life, although it was actually five.

The first two times were by air, one for my aunt’s wedding in which I was ring-bearer. The time before that I have no memory of because I was a baby, but it was one of those “wave the infant in front of grandma” trips.

The last three were when I was a tween and teen, every other year in the summer, by car. To me, it was amazing. I was fascinated by seeing all of these new places, many of them definitely far different in a lot of ways from L.A., and my views untainted by any kind of political perception.

Wyoming is an absolutely beautiful state, for its mountains, clouds and spreading green, cow-splattered landscapes. So are Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah — and in New Mexico, you can actually feel the point when you reach the “top of America,” on a lonely road that passes between granite boulders strewn on deep-looking mossy lawns. The air thins and the path grows steeper and you meet the Rockies.

Small towns along the way in Iowa and Nebraska just fascinated me, and I will forever have memories of the seemingly abandoned and ancient buildings along the main street of a place called Kearney, Nebraska. Although we never actually stopped in Chicago, again, it fascinated the hell out of me — especially since I grew up in a city that technically had a river which was mostly a concrete ditch, whereas in Chicago I remember driving on a freeway past one row of skyscrapers only to pass over a substantial river right in the middle of the city before passing into another row of skyscrapers.

Most of Indiana just seemed… sad and broken. And Ohio through most of Pennsylvania just got monotonous, endless views of rolling green hills and not much else.

On the other hand, I entertained myself by either reading tons of books or, on the later trips, writing, and it was on one of those trips, I think when I was 13, that I actually wrote most of the first draft of my first attempt at a novel, inspired by the spaces we were driving through.

One other thing I should mention: We made the trip in record time because my dad would drive for at least 12 hours a day. I distinctly remember that the first leg of one of them left L.A. before five in the morning, and we didn’t stop until Rock Springs Wyoming, until at least six p.m. Go look that trip up on Google maps!

Still, I don’t think that it was that Dad was a maniac. Mostly, I think it was that Mom didn’t want to travel without the dog, didn’t want to put her in cargo on a plane, but wanted to make the trip as quickly as possible.

The only touristy bits I remember were the day that my dad and I went into New York City and took a tour (loved it!) and the time my uncle took us both into Philadelphia to show us all the historic stuff (also loved it!).

Meanwhile, trips to visit my father’s mother and my step-grandfather involved about a three-and-a-half hour drive and no tourism, but the great part about that was that she and her husband lived on a 14-acre farm and orchard, so there was plenty of nature and there were plenty of animals to hang out with — and this locale also inspired my writing.

Friday Free-for-all #27: Potpourri

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

I’m going to mix it up a little bit, because I have a long list of possible questions that I chose from at random, but there are certain ones I really don’t have answers for, or the answers I do have are too short for an article.

By the way, I really do mean at random, thanks to the “RANDBETWEEN” function in Excel, which gives me two choices every time I update it. One is based on the question’s actual order in the list, and the other is based on a random number assigned to it at the time. The number chosen is itself random.

Anyway here we go with a few that have been on the list unanswered for a while, and you may see why shortly.

  1. What is the opposite of a koala?

And how stoned was the person who came up with this one? I mean, which attributes do you use to determine the opposite in the first place? Living marsupial? Then any dead non-marsupial would suffice.

Furry and squishy? How about… a rock? Native to Australia? You’ve got 194 not-Australia countries to choose from. So, I don’t know. Living, furry, squishy marsupial native to Australia? Maybe a dinosaur fossil from somewhere in Wyoming?

  1. If there existed a perfect clone of you, would it also be you? Would it act in exactly the same manner as you (like a mirror) or would it act differently? If it acted differently then would it still be you? At what point would it not be you?

This one starts from a flawed premise, because a clone is not an identical copy. Hell, your own clone might only look like a fraternal twin, and would definitely not be identical. The reason for this is that in cloning, DNA is used the same way it is in more traditional baby-making methods — i.e., fucking.

Now, there may not be two separate bits of RNA from different parents being tossed into an ova to develop, so that starting material is 100% your DNA — but from that point on, nothing resembles your own development.

The uterine environment will be totally different, and if you implant that ova in any womb not your own mother’s (highly likely) the physical and chemical influence on the developing embryo will be wildly different.

Hell, even if you do convince your mom to give re-birth to you decades after the fact, her own prenatal environment will be entirely different, and she may even be incapable of doing it anyway if enough time has passed to push her into menopause.

Now if we imagine some magic machine, like the Star Trek replicator, which is really a non-destructive teleporter, then yes, you could in theory create an exact duplicate, or non-biological clone, of yourself.

But… the two of you are only identical in the very first instant that the new you becomes conscious. From then on, that clone is living a different life, with a different set of experiences, and you will both slowly diverge from identical, at least mentally.

Oh — and if you felt the need to clone yourself in the first place, good luck resisting the urge to do what you probably made the clone for: the ultimate act of non-solo masturbation.

  1. You are about to get into a fight, what song comes on as your soundtrack?

I always thought of this one as the “toxic masculinity” question — as in if you have an answer to it, especially an instant answer, you are probably a toxic male. I don’t find it necessary to get into fights. I never have. If I were ever attacked by someone physically, then yes, you can bet that I’d defend myself. But I wouldn’t be hearing Eye of the Tiger or any other typical song like that in my head. I’d be more concerned with stopping the person assaulting me.

  1. If your job gave you a surprise three day paid break to rest and recuperate, what would you do with those three days?

I’m just coming off of a surprise five-month paid break, which offered neither rest nor recuperation, so I think I’d either just say, “Thanks, but pass,” or go hole up in a resort in Palm Springs, season permitting, and once the lockdown is over.

  1. What outfit could you put together from clothes you own to get the most laughs?

It’s one that I actually pulled together from several thrift shops for a specifically-themed costume party in the first place.

The outfit comprised a predominantly orange floral-patterned sun dress that I wore as a skirt instead, paired with a pale peach tone fuzzy sweater, topped off with an orange blazer.

I had plenty of cheap costume jewelry, like bracelets and a necklace, mostly bronze tones, and topped it off with fake glasses in orange frames, orange nail polish, and a long brunet (or is it brunette?) wig.

Finally, I found a matching bag and women’s high-heeled boots in my size — 15W after translating from men’s, and ta-da. Betty Duzzet was born. Slapping on those five-inch heels made me at least 6’7”, and the wig probably added another inch or two, so I was an amazon, but far from a glamazon, since I didn’t go nuts with the make-up beyond lipstick and eye-liner.

The outfit was actually a hit, and people told me that I looked like a lesbian English teacher at a small Liberal Arts College in the upper Midwest. She probably won’t be coming back, but the outfit is still hanging in my closet. And yes, she and I share the same favorite color, but this blog probably gave that away already.

  1. Which season are you most active in?

It’s definitely changed over my lifetime, but I’d have to say that I’m currently most active during the summer. Well, caveat: Up until 2019, I was. All bets on “active” are off for this year, and possibly next. I’ve come to enjoy the sun and the heat and being outdoors, and the need for a lot less clothing.

  1. What is the “holy grail” of your life?

This one is easy, and probably just as mythical: Owning a home. Nothing fancy, just a place with enclosed front and back yards for dogs, and a pool for me. Maybe a guest house for either rental income or to help out friends in need when necessary.

Friday Free-for-all #26

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If you went into a coma and woke up in the year 2120, what would be the first thing you would want to know?

Well, we’ll dispense with the obvious question first because it probably isn’t going to come up later: How the hell did you keep me a live in a coma for a century, and well past what was the maximum human life span at the time I went into it?

The real first thing I’d want to know would be… everything, although I’d probably start by asking — assuming the coma started before it happened — “Who won the presidential election of 2020, and what happened after that?”

It wouldn’t really influence my opinion of the present world, since a lot can change in a hundred years — in 1920, after all, the second term of an extremely racist U.S. President was coming to an end, and women were only just getting the right to vote on the federal level. Meanwhile, lynching and other acts of racial violence were far too common…

Okay, maybe shit doesn’t change in a century. Well, some things don’t. But on the other hand, comparing the state of technology in 1920 and 2020 is to compare two completely different worlds.

They barely had perfected the ability to fly, and the radio and telegraph were the state-of-the-art in long-distance communication. Meanwhile, we’ve sent people to the Moon and space, probes to other planets and outside of our solar system, while television has been a major medium since at least the 1950s and the internet and our phones have put each one of us, personally, in contact with the entire world almost instantaneously.

Seriously, I think if I explained to somebody in 1920 that I could use a keyboard and screen (or just the version of the screen that fits in my pocket) to chat with friends in cities across the U.S., or countries like Peru or the UK in real-time, their head would explode.

So I can only imagine the state of technology, and maybe that’s the first thing I’d ask. What was the successor to all of our technology? By this point, connectivity may just be implanted and universal, and who knows how far the transhumanist movement may have gotten.

Everyone may have already shifted to a life-like robotic avatar, or just migrated to a virtual existence a la the show Upload. It would explain how they managed to bring me back after a hundred years.

But all of that technology really doesn’t matter, though, depending on the answer to my real first question: Did humankind ever get its shit together and deal with things like inequality, injustice, and poverty; taking care of the environment and providing healthcare, education, housing, and a basic income for all? And everything else?

Solve those problems or make substantial gains in those areas, then okay, I might stick around. Otherwise, put me back in the coma and get back to me in a century.

Honestly, though, I think that humanity will only be around in a century if we do deal with all of these issues, and do so in a profoundly progressive manner. All of our technological advances are meaningless if we stay mired in greed, prejudice, fear, and intolerance.

This planet is not an Us vs Them proposition. There is only an Us, and it’s only in working together — and realizing that there is enough for everyone as long as too much doesn’t go to anyone — that we will actually see the year 2120.

Hell, without changing course, humans may not see 2024.

Friday Free-for-all #23

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s your favorite holiday movie?

Very appropriate that this one popped up now, since we’re almost exactly between Christmases which, face it, is what most people think of when they think “holiday movie.” Well, except for the twisted folk who think of the Halloween franchise, of course.

Groundhog Day is probably one of the better-known and more beloved non-Christmas films, But you have to think really hard to come up with others without looking. For example, which holiday is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles about? (Hint: it’s not Christmas.)

Did you even remember that Eight Crazy Nights is a thing until I mentioned it? And while at least the first Independence Day movie took place around that holiday, it only counts if you stick strictly to America, of course, which is just jingoistic and awkward when you remember that it’s the whole planet being invaded.

Easter movies tend to be about either Jesus or Bunnies, although Monty Python’s Life of Brian absolutely is an Easter film that isn’t strictly about either. New Year’s Eve fares a little better, including the strangely fascinating Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Released in 1995, it was set in the two days leading into the year 2000 — although it wasn’t so much about the holiday as about the existence of recordings of people’s memories as a black-market drug.

Oddly enough, 1995 was the same year that Terry Gillaim’s 12 Monkeys came out — another mid-90s science fiction film set in the very-near future, although in the case of this one, the year was 1996, which was about exactly a year after the release date of the film.

Meta.

But, for me, this question actually has two answers, and I’ve already mentioned the director of one of the films. However, I’ll start with the more obvious choice.

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those movies I can watch over and over, and from any point I happen to stumble across a re-broadcast. In case you live under a rock, it came out in 1946, directed by Frank Capra, and it stars James Stewart as George Bailey in the story of a small-town Everyman who winds up giving up his own dreams in order to help others.

One of the most fascinating things about the film is the abrupt tone-shift as we move into the third act, more on which in a moment. Up until that point, it barrels head-long into the American Dream — and remember, the whole thing was being produced right as the U.S. defeated the Powers of Evil™ and became the predominant and benevolent World Power — never mind that whole nuking civilians in Japan thing.

George Bailey — born into white privilege in the town of Bedford Falls, around 1907. After all, his father and uncle own the local Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, so the family is well-off. Well, at least until 1928, when young George is planning to embark on a world tour which is cancelled when his father has a stroke and dies.

Oops.

George is coerced by the board into taking over the company. Meanwhile, George gives his trip money to his brother Harry (whose life he already saved once) to pay his college tuition with the agreement that Harry take over the company after he graduates so George can be free to pursue his dreams.

Needless to say, Harry reneges because of a good job offer; George marries good girl Mary, but the stock market crashes and they have to spend their honeymoon money bailing out the Building and Loan.

Eventually, George starts a housing development with nice and affordable homes while the Big Bad, Henry Potter, tries to subvert him from his mission, but George will have none of it.

And then… George’s addle-brained Uncle Billy fucks up big time, accidentally hands Potter the Building and Loan’s deposits (the modern equivalent of $110K in cash), and suddenly George lands deep in the shit.

This is where the film turns dark and George’s guardian angel Clarence turns up to present George with the proverbial Monkey’s Paw answer to his appeal: “I wish I’d never been born.”

That’s exactly what George gets, and it becomes a beautiful butterfly effect of events. He never saved his brother from drowning, which had enormous repercussions in World War II, leaving hundreds of men to die in a Kamikaze attack. George wasn’t there to stop his pharmacist boss from making a mistake, leading to a kid being poisoned and said pharmacists winding up as a homeless town pariah.

Even the women in his life suffered — his wife Mary went on to become a mousy spinster librarian, and while it’s not absolutely clear how George helped childhood friend Violet Bick, she’s pretty much a whore in the town of Potterville. And even his own sainted mother morphed into one gigantic uber-Karen bitch.

Oh — it’s not Bedford Falls anymore, either, so there’s that.

There is one really brilliant but easy to miss moment in this act, too, and that’s the instant when Clarence starts the process of saving George. See, Bailey is about to dive off of the bridge to kill himself, hoping that his life insurance will take care of all of his financial problems. But Clarence knows his subject well, and in that moment he throws himself into the water first and begins shouting out that magic phrase.

“I can’t swim. Help, help. I can’t swim. Help!”

And what has been George’s life-long pattern? Helping everyone else without thinking about himself. So he dives in and drags Clarence out, and the rest happens.

Now, I don’t care how jaded or cynical you are, but once we get to the climax of the film — when George’s original reality is restored and he races home — if you don’t cry at least once if not for at least the last fifteen minutes of the movie, then you have no fucking heart.

Shit, if the waterworks don’t go off in just the first ten seconds of that clip out of context, make an appointment with your cardiologist now.

Here’s the funny thing about It’s a Wonderful Life, though — on initial release, it bombed. Big time. Critics loved it, but audiences didn’t, and it lost half a million dollars. It probably would have just vanished, except for one incredible fuck-up.

At some point, somebody forgot to renew the copyright, and so the film fell for a time into the public domain, which meant that it could be shown freely forever. And who picked up on that? Television stations, which led to the movie being run over and over around Christmas every year and, ta-da, instant classic.

Okay, slight simplification — the film itself was free. The short story it was based on was not. Still, beginning in 1974, the movie was on the express train to beloved Christmas classic and, honestly, I think that it deserves it.

As for my other choice, which I love even more than It’s a Wonderful Life, that would be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is every inch a Christmas movie while not being about Christmas per se, but still being about the hopes of a dreamer pitted against society at large.

Sure, Brazil’s Sam Lowry loses his battle, sort of, but he’s kind of an anti-George Bailey: a man who starts out working for the side of evil only to be liberated by his (most likely never-requited) love for a woman he may or may not have actually met, but rather only saw one time on the way to work.

That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst case, he actually wound up getting her arrested and, probably, summarily executed as a suspected terrorist. Oops.

Eventually, he winds up finding refuge in his own fantasia of a world where yes, he did actually matter as he is tortured by people he had thought to be his friends and allies.

All of this is played out against some of the most amazing film design ever, in a world that takes place during the entire 20th century at once, on a Tuesday. In fact, a lot of the aesthetic would have felt totally at home to George Bailey, especially the costumes and technology.

Here’s a really good example of the design and tech of the film:

Anyway, Gilliam’s Brazil is the best version of 1984 ever filmed, period. The movie is also infamous for some useless asshole producer at Universal trying eviscerate it, leading to Gilliam taking out ads in the trades demanding that the studio give his film back.

Luckily, Gilliam won that battle, although we still got to see the version that the hack Sid Sheinberg wanted to release on various Criterion Collections and, yes… it was absolute shite.

Anyway… it’s a nearly perfect film. Go seek it out and watch it, whether it’s Christmas or not.

PS: I’m so sorry that trailers in the 80s sucked ass…